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. Formed in 1979 in Richmond by founding members guitarist Kirk Hammett and drummer Tom Hunting, Exodus refined it’s sound inspired by European hard rock heavyweights like UFO and Budgie for 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 featuring 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 for personal reasons. Holt put Exodus on hiatus in the early ’90s after issuing the slower, more experimental Force of Habit in 1992, but the band reunited with Hunting, 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. 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.

Exodus has remained busy ever since, touring at a steady clip even with Holt taking extended breaks from the band to tour with Slayer as the fill-in for the band’s late guitarist Jeff Hanneman when he fell ill in 2011 (Hanneman passed away two years later). In addition to annual tours of the U.S. and regular appearances on the European festival circuit — often with second guitarist Kragen Lum taking Holt’s place when he is unavailable due to commitments with Slayer — last summer Exodus headlined it’s first Bay Area club shows since late 2013 when the band took over the Chapel in San Francisco’s Mission District for a two-night residency.

tom hunting raymond ahner CBS SF Talks To Exodus Drummer Tom Hunting

Exodus drummer Tom Hunting (credit: Raymond Ahner)

While he has spent some stretches of time away from the band, founding member Tom Hunting is recognized as one of the preeminent drummers in thrash metal, standing alongside such greats as original Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and fellow Bay Area virtuoso Paul Bostaph in terms of influence and inspiration. CBS SF recently spoke to Hunting about the band’s return to Slim’s next week as part of the venue’s week of special shows celebrating its 30th anniversary, touching on plans for the first Exodus studio album since Blood In Blood Out, his favorite venues in the San Francisco and his longtime passion for funk and soul music.

CBS SF: You guys were fairly busy on the road this year between the Mr. Pickles Thrashtacular and Europe over the summer, and now you’ve got a festival in Mexico next month before some European touring in December…

Tom Hunting: Yeah, for the upcoming European dates, we fly in on November 30 and do 18 straight shows and then come home. It’s a grind, but honestly dude, I would rather play every night. Nights off are cool, but on the last European run we did six and a half weeks, and at the beginning stage of it, there were a lot of nights off where we couldn’t fill dates or the distances were too far, so the summer Europe run was a long one. But I like to play every night.

CBS SF: I guess it fills your time better than adding to the sitting around that you already end up doing on tour. I guess you don’t always have time to go do something interesting to fill it.

Tom Hunting: The hurry up and wait? Yeah, for sure. Days off are cool too. I like to go see a movie or walk around the town we’re in, even if it’s late at night.

CBS SF: I’m figuring as busy as Gary has been with Slayer, the Thrashtacular was the last time you played with him?

Tom Hunting: Yeah. He did play with us in Japan [for Thrash Domination Feb. 10-11] before that. It’s been a crazy year.

But aside from a few practices and jams with just me and him. We’re happy he’s on board for these two shows at Slim’s and in Mexico. We’re super happy for him and what he’s doing with Slayer. We all want him to stay focused on that. In my opinion, I think it might be one of those real farewell tour, not a fake one. Because by all accounts, Tom Araya is just tired of doing this. He wants to go home and be a family man and tend to his ranch. And good on him! Because in the big picture, they’ve done a lot of shows in their lifetime.

CBS SF: That’s true. The breaks between Slayer tours have never been long, even when there have been long breaks between albums. They were generally out there every year.

Tom Hunting: It’s kind of sad and the end of an era, but that said, we’re happy to have our guy back and we’re excited to create some new music. We’re not really ready to retire yet. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be the last band standing at the end of all this [laughs].

CBS SF: Let’s get into that a little bit. I imagine you have some song ideas kicking around since it’s been four years since Blood In Blood Out. But I figure you aren’t booking studio time to record until after the Slayer farewell dates are wrapped up, though they still have places they haven’t been to and there’s already at least one date at Hellfest booked for next summer. Have you tried to get in a little work when there’s downtime between tours, or have you held off until Gary is free to concentrate on Exodus?

Tom Hunting: Not so much on these last legs, because both bands were super busy. We kind of just let each others’ focus stay on what was current and what we were trying to do. But I think in the upcoming Slayer breaks, we’ll probably get some work in on the new material. I think we would like to record next summer. Gary and I have played together. We’ve got the makings for four or five killer songs, and the riffs he’s writing are amazing.

He doesn’t get to write with Slayer, so I think he misses the creative process of it. We all do, because that’s the fun part. Even the uncomfortable beginning part of trying to put drums to a riff [laughs]. It’s a good time! We’re lucky to do what we do. I enjoy it. I like recording. It’s like building a sandwich. I always say the drums are the bread that hold everything together and the riffs are the meat [laughs].

CBS SF: Dating back to shows during the Rob Dukes era, I think I’ve probably seen you guys at Slim’s more than any SF venue, though I guess the Stone and the Omni might be up there if I could recall specifics through the fog of teenage memories. When did the band’s relationship with the club start? It seemed like for a while there, you played Slim’s every year in addition to whatever other tours you might be playing that stopped in San Francisco…

Tom Hunting: We love playing Slim’s! Aside from the DB [decibel] limit, it’s a killer club. It’s kind of one of the local hangs in SF. It has become legendary. I happen to love Boz Scaggs music and he’s a part owner of Slim’s. We always have a great time there. There was a cook there — he’s not working there anymore — but this cook there would cook us this amazing dinner. Always good to look forward to a killer meal at a gig.

But aside from our shows there, I always go to see Death Angel at Christmastime when they do their Christmas shows. I’ve seen AC/DShe there. I’ve seen some offbeat pop bands playing there. I’ve seen bands that are huge in Europe and then they come over here and they’re just getting their feet wet. They can draw like 3,000 in Europe but they go to Slim’s and draw 400, but those shows are awesome, because you’re seeing somebody who’s coming up and it’s an intimate setting.

The big festival shows are really fun and everything. They’re huge and you get treated really well, but I think as far as thrash music goes, especially Exodus’ music, it’s best delivered in that kind of intimate environment when people are in your face. There’s an energy there that you just don’t get from the larger shows. Not that they’re bad, because we love being able to play on a big stage too.

CBS SF: Were you thinking about doing a smaller local venue show with Gary ahead of the festival in Mexico as a warm-up? Or did the invitation from Slim’s to be part of their 30th anniversary celebration just happen to coincide?

Tom Hunting: Slim’s was booked way before we were invited to play Mexico. We’re happy to be part of their 30th anniversary. We’ve had some classic shows there! And I think this one will be no different. There will be some surprises and maybe some guests coming up to do some jamming. It should be a great night.

CBS SF: Last month, Steve Souza mentioned in an interview that the band is looking into some sort of extended residency similar to what you did at the Chapel last year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Exodus. Any more details you can talk about at this point?

Tom Hunting: There’s nothing really to speak of about any upcoming residency at the Chapel. It’s funny how those last shows came about. I was walking down the street going to BART and ran into two good friends of mine that are involved with the Chapel. One of them kind of helps book some of the shows and one of them is actually one of the people who manage the Chapel.

They were standing on the corner commiserating over Peter Murphy postponing his residency there. And I walked up on them and my friend was like, “Hey! Why don’t you guys play the Chapel?” That’s how all that came about. We love that club. Not to mention it’s a block and a half from where my wife and I share an apartment, so that makes it doubly awesome for me.

We don’t have a residency booked there, but we were looking into playing there at the same time the Slim’s opportunity came about. We would like to continue doing some kind of yearly thing at the Chapel also. I like that club a lot too. And I really the Great American Music Hall and we’ve never played there. I would love to get into that club to do a show. It’s just so ornate. I hope nothing bad ever happens to it, because I don’t think they could ever build anything like that ever again. It’s more pimped out than the Fillmore, and the Fillmore is bad ass.

CBS SF: Have you guys ever played the Fillmore? I’d imagine you would have played it at some point by now, but I don’t think I’ve seen you there…

Tom Hunting: I’ve only played it when we did “The Toxic Waltz” video in 1989. And then I left the band for a spell and I think they did two nights there. I don’t recall ever playing there as a gig. I’ve seen a lot of gigs there. I saw the Ramones there a couple of times and all sorts of other bands. We love the Fillmore. It’s awesome.

CBS SF: I didn’t know about your interest in funk and soul music until I learned that you were the band member responsible for Earth, Wind &Fire being played at the end of the shows at the Chapel. Was that always a style you listened to or did you get into it when you got older? I know I went from listening to classic rock to more punk and metal in my teens, but it wasn’t until my late teens and college that I started collecting records by Parliament-Funkadelic, James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire…

Tom Hunting: I had a good friend when I was about ten or eleven years old by the name of Ryan Berry. I have no idea where he is today, but he got me into Con Funk Shun — that was a band that hailed out of Vallejo in the mid-70s — and he got me into Rick James. When I was in junior high school, I would take my lunch money and buy a 45 like every day. It was either going to be the Beatles or something funky, you know what I mean? Lots of Commodores.

Gary and I grew up in San Pablo and everybody was listening to funk back in those days. It was a super integrated city with kids just sharing their musical styles with each other. Black, white, Latino, any kind of style was in there. We were fortunate to grow up in that era, because you could learn any instrument at a school back then. I learned some funk chops from these dudes back in junior high school. I don’t even know if they kept playing drums, but they showed me a few things.

My friend Ryan would bring by albums by Lakeside and Earth, Wind & Fire. And Earth, Wind & Fire were huge on the radio too back then, so I always loved them. We’d get into some deep tracks. Of course Parliament-Funkadelic and “Aquaboogie,” they were just so far out there. It was just great music. They were just going off and we loved it. That’s when all that came into play. That’s when I got into funk style drumming.

And then the classic rock was always there. I loved Heart. Their drummer was amazing, Michael Derosier. Both of their drummers actually; Denny Carmassi, who came later and also played with Gamma and Montrose back in the day. It was a combination of influences. I think when you’re at that age and immersed in music, I think everything is going to get in there [laughs]. You’ve just got to be open to it. I went to country concerts when I was eleven years old too. I saw Tammy Wynette and the Statler Brothers and Waylon Jennings. Then came punk rock and metal!

CBS SF: What other hard rock and metal influences came into play during the early stages of Exodus?

Tom Hunting: During the early stages of Exodus, Kirk was really into UFO. He exposed us to UFO and early Scorpions and Budgie. And another friend of ours Merle went out and bought the first Iron Maiden album just based on the cover. He went to Rasputin’s in Berkeley or somewhere and came home with this Iron Maiden record and we put it on and we were like “Holy s–t!”

Three weeks later, we were playing that stuff at backyard parties in Richmond and San Pablo and people thought they were originals because nobody had heard Iron Maiden yet. But Kirk really brought in the early European metal influences. He turned us on to Mercyful Fate. And then we started listening to Rampage Radio and Ron Quintana.

College radio back then gets enough praise for the beginnings of the metal movement. That’s kind of ground zero where it all started with people trading tapes and putting in the work to dub the best copies to ship off. Here we had KUSF and KALX, back in New York you had W blah blah blah and Chicago would have another station. And these guys were out there spreading this music late at night. And making us all crazy [laughs].

CBS SF: It’s impressive that Kirk was into Budgie that far back. Like most people I know, I didn’t learn about Budgie until after Metallica covered them…

Tom Hunting: Oh yeah. But the classic-rock influences were all there too. We always loved the Pat Travers Band and fricking Nazareth. I mean, Nazareth was a heavy-ass band dude! Grinding vocals and killer riffs. And Kirk was also the first person I ever knew who had subscriptions to Circus magazine and Creem and all that stuff. We would sit there in his room and absorb every word. It was great!

CBS SF: I’ve heard rumblings about a group you’re getting together with SF singer Lydia Walker (This Train Don’t Stop, Big Blu Soul Revue, Lydia &  the Projects). Can you talk about who else is involved and what your plans are? 

I’m dying to jam with Lydia. Jack and I had a bluegrass band called Coffin Hunter and we had this guy Larry Otis who played guitar with Ike and Tina Turner back in the day right before cocaine imploded the whole thing and everybody got frazzled and went their own way. He was there for that. He’s got really in-depth knowledge of that old R&B music. He can play pretty much anything and is multi-skilled on many instruments. We want to get him involved.

I saw Lydia sing — I can’t remember what place it was — but she did a Tina Turner cover. I think it was “Young and Dumb.” And oh my God! She’s a little shy and awkward in between songs, but then the song starts and she just goes for it. So we’re trying to put something together. I’m home for a while now, so we’re going to try to do something. And nothing is going to be off limits. She’s willing to sing AC/DC and stuff like that. I think she would just crush it.

CBS SF: Are you just playing drums? Because I saw you sing Sabbath songs at that Robb Flynn and friends fundraiser at the Metro, and I had no idea you had the pipes…

Tom Hunting: I just want to funk out on the drums. I’ll do some background vocals for Lydia. Back her up and get into some harmonies. I’m not opposed to singing a song, but I’m just stoked to jam with her. And with the other guys in the band.

Exodus plays Slim’s in San Francisco as part of the club’s 30th anniversary celebration on Tuesday, Sept. 18, with Hatriot and Ruby the Hatchet. Get tickets and more information here.

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