Exodus’ Gary Holt on Pissed-Off Riffs, Pain Management, and the Most Brutal Slayer Song

Photo by Ralph Arvesen, via Wikipedia

The true beauty of Exodus’ new album Persona Non Grata is just how pissed-off it sounds. The record charges out of the gate with fists windmilling, taking aim at anyone and anything in its path. From Tom Hunting’s tireless drumming to Steve “Zetro” Souza’s snotty howls to Gary Holt’s wily riffage, this album seems to bristle at the world around it. Hearing the energy and rage therein, one has to assume that the band were in a salty-ass place during its creation.

“The funny thing is, the album was written in the most joyous of environments,” laughs Holt. “We were up in the mountains, barbecuing daily, drinking beer, having fun, and writing this furious record. But when I was writing lyrics and the stuff for the album, subconsciously, lurking in the background, was the television, and just the shitshow of the world that had become. 2020 — riots, COVID lockdowns, COVID riots, election madness, general civil unrest — that kind of leaked into the album process without ever really meaning to. As far as the anger of the riffs, they’re always going to be angry. I like an angry riff!”

Holt has become a unique figurehead in the metal world. As both Exodus’ lead axeman and the late Jeff Hanneman’s replacement in the final incarnation of satanic thrashers Slayer, the guitarist has become an icon for those who love to push buttons and roll their eyes at the easily-offended masses. But behind the smirk and the ‘Kill the Kardashians’ shirt is a newly-sober grandpa, who’d rather not take part in the news cycle’s whirlpool and doesn’t give a shit whether you stop liking him or not.

“I try to stick to the old shut-up-and-play mantra,” says Holt. “Everyone knows I’m a fucking Democrat, but anyone who goes to my Instagram, they find pictures of my guitars, my cats, and my grandkids. Everyone’s divided enough, I don’t need to divide any further. And as far as canceling someone over their beliefs? Ted Nugent is THE guy who made me want to play guitar. He was this ten-foot-tall behemoth up there with this giant Gibson Byrdland and a wall of Fender Twins. I don’t agree with him on hardly anything, but if you want my copy of Double Live Gonzo!, you’ve got to take it from my cold dead fingers.”

It feels like COVID really informed Persona Non Grata. What was the band’s experience during lockdown?

For us, it was actually a positive, because it gives Tom [Hunting, drums, who was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma this April] more time to get back to full strength before we actually hit the road and subject him to exposure. He’ll always be in some way immunocompromised. He’s doing amazing — almost a month ago, we played our first show back with him. We played in Northern California, so it was really the return of Tom Hunting. I could barely keep up with him at rehearsal. I had to ask him to slow ‘Strike of the Beast’ down just a hair!

It’d make sense that he had something to prove upon returning to the stage.

Yeah, and he destroyed it! It was epic. It was a good return for him — it was 40 minutes, it wasn’t like he had to come back in on an hour-and-a-half club show. It was outdoors, the weather was cool. No one was gasping for air, myself included! It wasn’t the brutal sauna that it could’ve been. It was a perfect one to get under the belt.

The track “Clickbait” jumps out as an especially furious song. Where’d that come from?

It’s a title that I had always wanted to use it, and that was one of the last songs written and recorded and one of the first I had worked on. I get OCD like that — I’ll jump to the newest song and forget all the other stuff from before Tom and I got together. So towards the end, it kind of came out. It was totally killer. And subject matter, I’ll let people decide what it’s about themselves. I’ve seen opinions where they think I’m spouting MAGA-talking-point fake news. And that’s not what it is! Sometimes you gotta have half a brain and look at the guy who wrote it. It was inspired by the metal news media more than anything — the metal journalist websites are the kings of clickbait! [Obviously not The Pit, though. -Ed] They’ll constantly take some nugget of a line and put it out of context. But the bottom line is, you get paid by how many people click on the articles. I fall victim to it all the time!

Do you ever watch the media feeding frenzy go down over things you’ve said in the press?

I love it! Without naming songs, because that would give away the secret, there are songs in our set that are completely opposed to what people think they’re about. I’ve watched people on one side of the spectrum singing the lyrics thinking, ‘That’s not what it’s about, but I’ll let you have it. It’s yours — make it what you will.’ I mean, if I told them, they’d say, ‘I hate that song now!’

So many bands talk about how they wrote their latest album long before COVID, but it sounds like you guys made this one in the heart of it.

When we came home from the Bay Strikes Back tour in Europe, we were being chased by COVID everywhere we went. Had the tour started two weeks later, it would’ve been a financial disaster, but we only missed two shows. When we got home, our goal was to write an album. We didn’t book a festival run. And COVID benefited us, because there were no offers that jumped out and made us say, Oh, well, the money’s good, we’ll come back to [the record] later. The only thing we could control was our own creativity. We couldn’t go anywhere, or fly anywhere, or play anywhere…but we could write metal! So that all worked in our benefit. I had friends who had merch printed for tours that got canceled, and now that shit’s just shop rags. And after that, with Tom’s cancer, we needed time anyway. Everything worked out for us with COVID….as far as cancer can work out for you. The first setback was postponing the tour I’d be on right now, the Bay Strikes Back in the US.

Was there a specific moment or show in Europe where you were like, Oh shit, this is getting serious?

Constantly. We played several cities where at midnight the night we finished playing, they shrunk legal capacity down to half what our show just was. Had that happened a day earlier, we’d have had an entirely different show. We were just dodging bullets left and right on that tour. And then Milan got canceled, which was actually sad for the fans, but my elbow problems were at an all-time high on that tour. That was one of the things that got me through.

Have your elbow issues been dogging you throughout this album cycle?

By the time we’d finished the album, my round of cortisone injections had worn off. Like, towards the end of recording, I blew out my right elbow tracking “The Beatings Will Continue (Until Morale Improves).” Over the past several years, I’ve had so many cortisone injections that I can’t count ‘em. And anybody who’s ever had injuries knows that cortisone is just a Band-Aid, and it’s only going to mask the damage that’s going on. What I did was basically turned my elbows into mush. Fucking mashed potatoes in there. We finished the album in late October, and the last round I got was in December, and instead of getting a good six months out of them, I got three weeks out of them. And then I couldn’t play guitar, and I didn’t know if I’d ever play guitar again, without surgery. I got MRIs and they just showed massive damage, the damage a pitcher gets from throwing fastballs. I have a friend who’s a team elbow doctor for the San Francisco Giants, and he said,  You don’t need surgery, you need real intensive physical therapy. I did that, and I’m playing now every day. I still get some discomfort, but I’m confident that I can go out and play any tour I want. I just can’t start throwing a lot of weights around in the gym, and I’ve got to be careful. But at the same time, I have to work them every day, so I’m doing these hand exercises with these five-pound weights. Not exactly the most macho weight-lifting ever, when you got pink five-pound dumbbells and doing wrist exercises!

A baseball team’s elbow specialist looking at a thrash guitarist’s injuries makes a lot of sense, actually…

It’s just a repetitive use injury. I feel really good now, but there was a large period of time where I couldn’t grab the leaf blower and get leaves out of the driveway. I’m always passing it from one arm to another, but they’re both fucked up, so there’s no relief. But I’m going about my normal routine now, because as much as not playing guitar can mess with you, and that and COVID and Tom’s cancer led to my drinking problem, you get just as depressed that you can’t go out and dig a ditch or clear the leaves without having a really painful experience. Like, Fuck, if I can’t play guitar, am I gonna be able to live a normal life on top of that? Sucks. But I’m trying to keep going. Didn’t miss any shows with Slayer, and the Slayer set’s kind of ferocious anyway. It started with just my right elbow, then my left joined the party, and then it was like, Put a needle in there. Which sucks. It hurts. It’s a big needle.

Do you feel like you learned anything from playing with Slayer that you brought to Persona Non Grata?

Not really – when I’m writing Exodus stuff, I have two things on my mind, my riffs and Tom Hunting’s drumming. I just take it from there. Slayer was really good for my chops, but in the end, I turned to chemicals to help deal with the damage. Because the Slayer set is different — both bands have super brutal songs, but when they’re your riffs, they’re a little easier. They were written by you and for you. Some of the Slayer stuff was difficult to play because you have to change the way you play it. A little less deep muting, a little more open, BRRRRR. It changed the stress points on your arms.

Was there a Slayer song that was just murder to play every time?

“World Painted Blood!” We always opened with it, and it’s a very challenging opening song. If you played it four or five songs in, you’re rolling, you’re warmed up. But that one was always tough. I remember we played Sonisphere in Finland, and it was 35* when we went on, and we did not open with “World Painted Blood!” We opened with “South of Heaven,” because that shit was freezing. During the long trip to the stage, Kerry and I were like, ‘We’re going on like linemen for the Green Bay Packers.” No jackets, no sleeves, blowing frost — fuck it. We don’t play for some sunny weather team!

Did you notice any riff or technique while playing with Slayer where you thought, Man, these guys might’ve picked that up at an early Exodus show?

I think there’s an incestuous love between all the early thrash bands. We all have a distinct flavor that’s uniquely our own, but we’re all big fans of each other. I think if you went in and mathematically analyzed any of the bands, you’d find bits and pieces from each other. But we all put our own stank on it!

Now we’ve gotta ask — what was Exodus’ personal stank?

The CRUNCH! Crunchier than all!

Exodus’ Persona Non Grata drops tomorrow, November 19th, on Nuclear Blast, and is available for preorder.

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Words by Chris Krovatin