Slayer: 'You do wonder if you've grown together or apart'

With 50th birthdays approaching, Slayer are feeling the toll of three decades on the road. But disappointing their fans is unthinkable

So being in a rock band is a cakewalk? Think how sick you are of the sight and the sound and the smell of everyone at the end of a weekend-long stag do. Now imagine all those Sunday morning feelings of wishing everyone else would shut up extended from a couple of hours to 28 years. Imagine those years grinding on and on and on as you do the same thing album after album, show after show.

Nearly 30 years into their career, Slayer are still touring the world, playing five nights out of seven to big crowds. They are still releasing huge-selling albums of extreme music. To the untrained ear, the music on their new album World Painted Blood sounds exactly the same as what they were doing on their 1986 album Reign in Blood, the Rick Rubin-produced record that is considered to be the sacred text of thrash metal. Slayer have a sound and a set of lyrical themes (religion, death, murder, war) to which they stick unwaveringly. There is a lesson here about single-mindedness and the strength of the human spirit. Probably.

I meet bassist and singer Tom Araya and guitarist Kerry King at their label's offices in west London. The building is bright and white and spacious. Araya and King both look wildly out of place, though I suspect King, wearing rolled-up camouflage trousers, with a red-brown beard reaching down to his chest, his head shaved clean, his skull, arms, legs and hands all tattooed extensively, and locked behind sunglasses, would look out of place anywhere other than on stage with Slayer. "I haven't exactly gone out of my way to blend in," he admits. The pair won't be interviewed together – after 30 years, who would be? – and the experience throws their differences into sharp relief.

Araya laughs a lot, and offers drinks from the iced tub of vodka, juice and beers behind him. He's 48 and has long strands of silver in his hair. His tattoos are well worn, like a sailor's. The band have just played a couple of shows in Europe. They were "awesome", apparently, but then they always are. Do you ever do rubbish shows?

"Oh yeah!" he says. "The first one's usually rubbish. You come off and look at each other and say, 'You know what, I sucked!' We have to start straight off at 150% and go straight to 200%. If we start at even 148%, we're fucked. If we're not all together from the off then half of us will never catch up."

You must sound bloody awful if you're not together.

"We do, yeah! That's exactly how we sound. We have a new song called Psychopathy Red which is pretty intense, the first verse was great, but then I lost the intro to the second verse and I couldn't catch up at all. I had to lose that whole verse and just wait for the third. To be honest, it wasn't long to wait and no one will notice anyway."

Araya talks of preparing his material at home with just an acoustic guitar and three chords. I ask if there's a sensitive singer-songwriter aching to get out.

"No! Not ever! No cheesecloth shirts!" he yells. "I don't want that at all. We must never, ever disappoint. Bands have disappointed me and it's a terrible feeling."

World Painted Blood must not fail. It is the last release due under their contract with Rick Rubin's American label. "He's always been there in the back seat," Araya says of their bearded overlord. "He listens to everything and says, 'Yay' or, 'Nay'. Luckily, it's generally been more 'Yay'."

Recently there has been talk of this being Slayer's last record, that they've had enough. "Seeing a 50-year-old man headbanging on stage would make me cringe," Araya said recently. He smiles a decidedly small smile when I ask if this is it for the band.

"We don't know yet," he says. "I know this much: being away from your family so much doesn't get any easier. I've been married for 15 years. I have a 13-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son and I want to make up for the all the time I wasn't there. I have nieces and nephews I've barely seen. This life demands so much of you, personally and physically. I honestly don't know how I did the first 15 years of Slayer. How did I get so fucking wasted then play every fucking night? Then, immediately after playing, do it all over again. How the fuck did we all do that?"

Are you as fearless as you were at 20? Do you want it all as much?

Araya pauses for a long time. "Er …" He pauses again. "Wow!" He takes another 10 seconds. "It's not so much 'Do you still want it?' as much as a question of 'How much more are you willing to take?' There's so much shit that goes on behind the scenes, not just the bureaucratic bullshit that goes on with the label or with touring, but the other, bigger stuff. It's the four different personalities in the band trying to get along. Sometimes we clash, that's normal. But after 28 years you do wonder if you've grown together or apart."

There is a popular theory among those that care about these things that people are frozen emotionally at the age they became famous. With Araya I'm not sure that's true – he seems almost painfully aware of being nearly 50 and of what he's missed to be where he is – but Kerry King seems a perfect case study. He's like a profoundly unpopular schoolboy who has never quite got used to having people listen to him. He's not sullen, not unpleasant, just utterly disengaged. "I like playing," he says. "The rest is bullshit."

As a child, King and his dad kept birds – hookbills and cockatiels – now, rather appropriately, he "does" reptiles. His latest favourite is his carpet python. "They come in a variety of colours and they look tough," says the tattooed man in the big black boots.

Could your python eat a goat? "No," King says. "It's not big enough." And that's the end of that.

In a stab at lightening the mood, I ask King what he thinks is the greatest record ever made.

"That's a real sit-down-and-a-cognac question, isn't it?" he says, yanking the cap off a bottle of vodka and – surely for my benefit – filling a large glass almost to the brim before stirring in a tablespoon of juice. "Van Halen's first record is amazing. Sure, it's rock'n'roll, but it introduced the world to what the electric guitar could do. Sabbath's Sabotage is very, very heavy. AC/DC's Powerage, Judas Priest's Stained Class, some Maiden too …"

Ask him about what he does away from music and he'll tell you about collecting athletes' autographs. Ask him what he misses most from home when he's touring and he'll say, "being at home watching American football. I like to be in control of the TV. But the thing I miss the most from home is my stuff."

We have two minutes left so I ask what King has learnt about human nature after nearly 30 years on the road.

"I've learnt what not to say," he says. "Why set someone off? Some bands can't get over something someone said 15 years ago and split up, but when we go home, we just scatter. I don't need to call them. After all," he says, his voicebox audibly tightening as the vodka rips past it, "what am I going to say?"

• World Painted Blood is released on Monday on American/Columbia. Slayer play Nottingham Rock City on November 18, then tour


Rob Fitzpatrick

The GuardianTramp

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