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Slayer Frontman Looks Back at 2010, Awaits 2011

Kevin Winter, Getty Images

For Slayer frontman Tom Araya, 2010 has been a lesson in self-belief, endurance and reinvention. He started the year with debilitating back pains. After unsuccessful treatments to cure a degenerative neck and back injury, he discovered he would have to undergo surgery and Slayer would have to postpone five months of scheduled tour dates with Megadeth and Testament.

Doctors cut open Araya’s neck, reconstructed parts of spine and replaced damaged bone with pieces of metal in a procedure known as an anterior cervical discectomy with fusion. The operation worked. The canceled American and Canadian Carnage dates were rescheduled, and Araya rejoined his bandmates on May 20 for ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live.’

Then, Slayer resurrected their European and American 1990/1991 Clash of the Titans — one of their most legendary tours to date — first with Megadeth and Testament on the Carnage Tour, then with Megadeth and Anthrax (performing once again with vocalist Joey Belladonna, as they had on the 1990 dates). But the highlights of the year were the seven Sonisphere festival dates in Europe with the Big Four — Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax.

The June 22 concert in Sofia, Bulgaria was videotaped and shown in movie theaters across the world. It was released released in various packages as ‘The Big Four Live From Sofia, Bulgaria.’ Finally, Slayer capped off a near-perfect comeback with their fifth Grammy Nomination for ‘World Painted Blood,’ the title track for their November 2009 album. If they win, it would be Slayer’s third Grammy Award.

Noisecreep recently talked to Araya about the probability that the Big Four will launch a U.S. tour next year, his relationship with former arch-rival, Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine, how his surgery changed his performance style and his bizarre relationship with his bandmates.

‘The Big Four Live From Sofia, Bulgaria’ DVD is a great showcase of thrash metal at its best. Its great to have the show available for home viewing. But the question remains: Why didn’t the Big Four play a North American tour as well?

That was entirely scheduled and decided on by Metallica. That was their decision. But there’s a rumor going around that we might bring it out to the States.

Would that happen in 2011?

I can just tell you that rumors are flying and that’s usually a good sign. I haven’t talked to [Lars Ulrich or James Hetfield of Metallica] or anybody. I don’t usually communicate with band members like that. I talked to all of them on the tour, but I don’t have anyone’s personal numbers or numbers where I can communicate with them when we’re not on tour. Maybe one day I’ll sit there and ask them for their numbers. But unless someone offers me their number, I don’t ask for it unless there’s some reason I need it.

A lot of Americans felt really deprived that the Big Four didn’t play the States right after Europe — if not before.

I agree. I’m right there with you, man. I remember when this first came together, there was a journalist who had asked Hetfield about the tour and what he thought about it how it would do. And he said they weren’t really sure about how well it would do and they would have to do a little bit more homework on it. I’m sitting there thinking to myself, “Man, if you asked me that question, I’d say, ‘Man, I think it would be awesome. I think we should do a worldwide tour. I think it would be f—ing amazing and blow all the doors open everywhere.’ And you’re telling me they have to sit there and think about it?”

To me it’s a given. You wouldn’t need ask me twice. And it was huge. It blew away all expectations. Every show that we did was amazing. We did 10 shows, and each time it was 90,000 plus. We played to between [one and a half to two] million people in those 10 days.

Any strange moments on the Sonisphere tour?

The craziest one was the last show we did. It was in Finland and it with Anthrax and Megadeth, but not Metallica. You know how in Texas we get these microblast storms that come through that are like these miniature hurricanes? That happened as soon as we walked off the stage. I’m in the dressing room changing, and I’m hearing this crazy wind and rain and all of a sudden they opened the door and people were scattering and running.

The stage blew off. There were two stages. The second stage was completely soaked and drenched in water. All the gear was completely ruined. They were going to cancel the show until they found out that we had a PA board that they could use for the front house. We let them use our gear so Iron Maiden could play. All Mötley Crüe‘s gear was completely demolished. The festival organizers cannibalized the second stage to salvage the main stage so the show could continue. Iggy Pop did a couple of acoustic songs while they were repairing the place so they could finish the show. And then Alice Cooper went on. It was pretty crazy.

You brought down the wrath of God.

Yeah, exactly — the whole tour. Everywhere we went, when we played with Metallica, it rained. There was definitely a black cloud following us. Even the show they filmed at Sofia rained.

That Sofia show which they filmed the DVD for was amazing. Everyone played great.

All of the shows were like that. Things like that make you want to be the best. You’re up there with the best bands, and it brings out the best in everybody.

Did you have any great backstage moments?

I guess when it comes to that stuff I’m kind of antisocial. It’s not meant in a bad way. I used to be a social bug, but I’m just not anymore. I leave people to their privacy, and I hope they leave me to mine. Do unto others. I leave them alone and they leave me alone.

You’ve done a lot of touring with Megadeth and probably will continue to do so. Are you friends with Dave Mustaine now. Have you put the bitterness of the past behind you?

He’s another human being who lives on this planet, and that’s about it. He comes across as a nice guy, but I keep my guard up around him. He’s courteous to me and my wife and my kids. So I’m courteous in return.

Was it more fun doing the U.S. dates with Anthrax or Testament?

Wow. I thought both were good. I think it would have been cool if we could have done it with all four bands. It would have been a Clash of the Titans reunion if Testament had done that.

What’s the plan for the new year?

We’ll be busy from February through May. We’ll be heading to Australia, there are some shows we’re going to be doing in Europe and South America is in there also. As far as who the shows are with, I don’t know. I think some of those shows might be with Megadeth, but I’m not sure. We’re booked up until May. After that, I don’t know.

Have you had to make any adjustments to your performance post surgery?

Yeah. I can’t headbang anymore. The whole thing’s a bum out. Headbanging is a big part of what I did. My singing has improved and my playing has improved. But it’s just not the same for me.

Have you ever caught yourself almost starting to headbang?

I did it once. The very first show after the surgery. We did the Jimmy Kimmel show and we went into the three songs that we did off air. I started headbanging and then realized what I was doing and stopped. And I haven’t headbanged since. It’s just a bum out, and that’s about the only way I can really describe it. To me, being onstage and performing is a big thing. And not headbanging has taken a lot of that away from me. When you’ve got the kind of relationship that we have as a band — when you put your heart into the performance because that’s all you’re allowed to do, it’s a bum out.

Are Slayer working on any new material?

I don’t know. No one has sent me anything in reference to anybody getting together to work on anything. Nobody has sent me that memo yet. So if they’re getting together and working on material, I don’t know. They’re in L.A., I’m in Texas. So we really don’t communicate.

You don’t talk when you’re not on tour?

Not really. We’ve never really communicated, period. We talk and communicate out on the road, but as far as being home, no. It’s been like that for a long time. I hate to say that, but it’s kind of been like that since the band’s inception.

Maybe you’ve been able to stick around so long because you didn’t start as close friends and then lose that friendship over time. You started as work partners, bandmates. And that’s how your relationship has remained?

Talking to my sister, she nailed it on the head. With me, I am very passionate about the band. From the start, I was passionate about the music we were creating and what we were doing. And along the way I realized that I was the only one that felt that way about it – passionately being a part of something and putting your heart into it and including everybody in it. Through the years, that was a discovery I made. And that’s kind of too bad, but at least it hasn’t stopped us from doing what we do.

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