By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the pioneering thrash-metal outfits to emerge in the Bay Area, Exodus has been delivering its signature neck-snapping riffs for closing on four decades. The group was formed in 1979 in Richmond by guitarist Kirk Hammett and drummer Tom Hunting, several years before Los Angeles transplants Metallica poached Hammett to replace troubled guitar player Dave Mustaine in 1983.
The band went through a number of line-up changes before the quintet — now led by guitarist and principal songwriter Gary Holt — recorded its seminal debut Bonded By Blood with original vocalist Paul Baloff in 1984. Powered by such brutal mosh-pit anthems as “And Then There Were None,” “Strike of the Beast” and the pulverizing title track, the recording would have been one of the first salvos of the growing Bay Area thrash-metal movement if the album’s release hadn’t been delayed by business issues until the spring of 1985.
Still, thanks to underground success of the raw recording and the band’s growing reputation for ferocious live shows, Exodus was soon being courted by major labels trying to tap into the emerging popularity of thrash. The band would part ways with Baloff after the Bonded By Blood tour, replacing him with Steve “Zetro” Souza, the singer who had made his name fronting another East Bay metal band Legacy (who would soon rename themselves Testament).
Signed to Sony/Combat Records, Exodus hit its commercial peak with 1987’s Pleasures of the Flesh and Fabulous Disaster two years later, continuing to set the bar for sonic brutality high while earning a broader audience thanks to MTV airplay of the hit “The Toxic Waltz” from the latter album.
The group would hit a rough patch after moving to Capitol Records for 1989’s Impact is Imminent following the departure of Hunting. Holt would put Exodus on hiatus in the early ’90s after issuing the slower, more experimental Force of Habit in 1992, but the band reunited with Baloff and new bassist Jack Gibson later in the decade for a live album and periodic touring. It wasn’t until after Baloff passed away in 2002 from a stroke that Souza would return to the fold, recording 2004’s Tempo of the Damned before a sudden and acrimonious split from Exodus that same year.
The band spent much of the next decade producing new albums featuring more intricate thrash epics with new singer Rob Dukes and former Heathen guitarist Lee Altus, who performed on several acclaimed albums including a re-recording of Bonded By Blood entitled Let There Be Blood in 2008. While the busy Holt has split his time since early 2011 filling in onstage for ailing Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman (who sadly two years later), Exodus has remained his main passion.
In 2014, the band made surprise announcement that it had parted ways with Dukes after a decade and Souza would be returning to Exodus once again. Though some fans expressed skepticism over the change, their Nuclear Blast Records release Blood In, Blood Out that year was widely hailed as a punishing return to form.
This weekend, Exodus will headline it’s first Bay Area club shows since late 2013 when the band takes over the Chapel in San Francisco’s Mission District for two nights. The band is promising a special event for fans with plans to film the Exodus as they perform some rarely heard songs alongside classic hits in addition to inviting some past members onstage for guest appearances. CBS SF spoke to Holt earlier this week about the two-night SF residency as well as his plans with both Exodus and Slayer.
CBS SF: The band just played San Bernardino this past weekend with Iron Maiden. How was that, besides being hot as blazes?
Gary Holt: The show itself, returning to the stage with Exodus, was awesome, because it’s been a while. But other than that, the show was kind of a disaster because the front of house mixing desk basically melted down prior to us going on. It was the board that us and Camelot were using. I don’t even think we had the PA working for the first three songs [laughs]. So on that level it was kind of a disaster, but I still had fun playing.
CBS SF: You kind of already answered one of my questions. I saw that there were some recent European dates for Exodus, but it looked like Slayer was doing the European festival circuit as well. I was wondering if any of those dates might have coincided where you would have played with Exodus as well, but I guess not if the San Bernardino show was the first time in a while…
Gary Holt: No, but fortunately for Exodus, Kragen Lum from Heathen has been my stand-in now for a long time and he does a fantastic job. The fans have been very open and accepting of the band in my absence. Unfortunately, I haven’t perfected cloning, so I can’t be in two places at the same time [laughs]. So, like I said, it’s been a while and if felt good, even if it was under far from ideal circumstances.
CBS SF: Had Exodus played or toured with Maiden before?
Gary Holt: No, Maiden has been out on tour with Ghost, but I think they did this a couple of years ago as well. When they played the Southern California show they added some bands and made it kind of like a mini festival because that amphitheater down there is massive. I guess you’d call it a little one-day Maiden fest. It was a pretty epic show. It just had some epic technical failures.
CBS SF: I think when I talked to Steve last, a couple of years ago, he said Exodus was going to try to get together a local headlining show, but that just three weeks after Repentless came out, which has kept you busy since. Was the last time you played with Exodus in SF for the local Dark Roots of Thrash II date with Testament? I think that would have been in Spring of 2015…
Gary Holt: Yeah, that was the last Bay Area show I played with them. We haven’t headlined in I think four years now, so these upcoming shows are long overdue.
[Editorial note: Holt did play with Exodus in San Francisco in September 2016 during the band’s tour with Killswitch Engage]
CBS SF: I think I caught that show at Slim’s. If I remember right it was the last show here with Rob Dukes. I also caught the tour with Exodus opening for Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies where you did double duty playing for both bands. I imagine that’s pretty taxing…
Gary Holt: It’s not easy when you’re in your early 50s [laughs], but I’m willing to do it whenever it comes up.
CBS SF: Has there been enough down time between tours with Slayer this year for you to start working on new Exodus material?
Gary Holt: Yeah, last year right before Halloween, Slayer finished touring and I had six months off. I’ve just been writing the whole time. Tom Hunting and I have gotten together to jam and are starting to flesh out the next record.
CBS SF: Both you and Kerry King have spoken in interviews this year about the possibility of you contributing to writing on the next and it sounds like everybody is open to it. Has there been any discussion within the band to that end since the topic came up?
Gary Holt: No, we’re not quite at that stage. Once we get there, I’m ready and willing to contribute if the need is there. I’ve got almost seven years playing with these guys, so I kind of know how a Slayer song works [laughs]. There are some subtle differences that make one song a Slayer song and another song an Exodus song; it’s mostly note selection and things of that sort. But I’m ready to go if they need me.
CBS SF: It sounds like Slayer’s recording plans wouldn’t be until next year; do you imagine Exodus would be back in the studio before then?
Gary Holt: We’re hoping to be in the studio late this year or early 2018. We’ll have to see what happens. I don’t know what the Slayer schedule will be, but I don’t think they will overlap. Which would be good.
CBS SF: When we talked a few years ago prior to Blood In Blood Out being recorded, you mentioned having gotten the “Pink Floyd or Rush of thrash” out of your system as far as Exhibit A and Exhibit B leaning towards more complex song structures. Do you see the new album sticking to the more straight forward type of tunes that were on Blood In Blood Out?
Gary Holt: You know, it’s hard to say. Of the stuff I’ve written so far, I think the songs are shorter, but I think they’re also at the same time more progressive than the last album. It’s a little outside the box. It’s really super crushing, but I think people will be surprised.
It’s an Exodus album, but as of now, the stuff Tom and I have been putting together is a bit different. It’s got those subtle changes that make for a departure, but it will still stay true to the core of the band’s sound.
CBS SF: I’ve seen a few things about these upcoming Chapel shows as far as possible filming. Is there anything you can reveal about those plans?
Gary Holt: Yeah, I think we’re filming them. The first night is going to be Steve Souza’s first headlining show with Exodus back in the Bay. We’re going to put together a pretty varied set list and try to pull out a couple of deep tracks. It’s going to be really killer.
The second night, we’ve got a few special guests lined up. It’s going to be awesome. We have Rob Dukes coming up to sing some songs. I’m super stoked about that. [Classic-era guitarist] Rick Hunolt is going to play a few songs and Kragen, who has been standing in for me, is going to play some songs. It’s going to be a night to remember.
CBS SF: That’s great! I always enjoyed seeing Exodus when Rob was in the band so it will be good to here him sing with you again. Was it tough make the time to rehearse that stuff ahead of the shows?
Gary Holt: I’ll let you know Thursday when we do it [laughs]. We have a full day planned on Thursday. Most of those songs are second nature to those who played on them. It’s just a matter of getting it together. Hell, I need to call him, but I think we’ve even got Paul Bostaph coming up to play drums on a song. It’s going to be a really cool night.
CBS SF: Did you have a hand in selecting the support bands besides the obvious familial connection with Zetro’s kids’ band Hatriot?
Gary Holt: Yeah, there were a number of bands that were run past me. One of them — the name escapes me right now — but my wife had seen them and I checked out some YouTube video. They’re a kick-ass thrash band called, I think they’re from Vallejo. I thought we’d help the local guys out and put them on the show.
CBS SF: I think that’s Pounder who open the second night. I saw that Exodus has another trip to Europe coming up soon. Will you be along for that?
Gary Holt: No, because next week I leave to start the U.S. tour with Slayer, Lamb of God and Behemoth.
CBS SF: With Slayer, does the band get together to rehearse before a tour like this, or do you play with them often enough that it’s pretty much a matter of just getting back up on the horse?
Gary Holt: That’s pretty much it for me. When we have a good chunk of time off, Kerry and Paul will get together and then Tom will join them. Unless it’s something I really feel I need to rehearse with the band on, I never go to rehearsal. They play down in LA and I just make sure I’m familiar with all my parts.
I’ll just sit and rehearse to the records and play along to the whole catalog. That’s stuff that I know. And then when we go out, I’m ready to go. They have complete faith in me. They don’t trip that Gary Holt’s rehearsals start at showtime [laughs]. I’ve managed to do it without f–king up, so until that day comes, they’ll be cool and let me stay home with my family until the tour starts.
CBS SF: Have you been to the Chapel before?
Gary Holt: No, but I did my research when the offer for the shows came and I love the place. I think it’s going to be a really special couple of shows.
Exodus plays the Chapel in San Francisco on Friday-Saturday, July 7-8, 7 p.m. $32. Saturday’s show is sold out.